Trip Start Apr 04, 2007
115Trip End Oct 22, 2007
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Auschwitz was initially a series of three camps, Auschwitz I was the first of the three, and initially housed Polish political prisoners and some of the hapless families who had been living nearby, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Later in the war, it became a labour and extermination camp, and the sight of horrific medical experiments conducted upon the mainly Jewish prisoners. Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, was built primarily as an extermination camp, and is considerably bigger than the first site, with over 300 barracks built to house up to 400 prisoners each. The huge gas chambers and crematoria which were built to kill thousands of people at a time were torn down by the fleeing Nazis in the closing days of the war in an attempt to cover up the scale of their horrific crimes there, but literally mountains of evidence remains. The third camp, Auschwitz III, or Monowitz, was built to house prisoners who were forced to work at a nearby chemical plant, which produced the poisonous gas Cyclon B. This camp was totally destroyed by the Nazis before they fled.
Today, Auschwitz I and Birkenau stand as memorials, testaments to the unthinkable horrors committed by the Nazi regime during World War Two. At these camps alone, it is believed that more than 1.5 million people were killed. They were citizens of more than 20 different countries, Jews, gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, Jehovah's witnesses - literally millions of innocent men, women and children who suffered and died on these sites. A few survived to tell the story of what had happened there, and it was they who began conducting the first tours of the camps, and who worked to ensure that the evidence of the Nazi genocide was preserved as a chilling reminder for future generations.
Entry to the camp today is the same as it was for the cattle-cars of tired, frightened families who arrived there decades ago. Barbed wire fences and stark watch towers frame a wraught iron gate with the ironic slogan, 'Arbeit Macht Frei', translated from German as 'Work Will Set You Free'. Inside, row after row of brick barracks contain evidence of the lives that ended so brutally within those barbed fences. In one, room after room is filled with the personal belongings stolen by the Nazis from the prisoners as they arrived. Tens of thousands of pair of shoes fill one room; in another, children's clothing is a heartbreaking reminder of the most vulnerable of those who arrived here, the majority of whom were sent directly to the gas chambers along with the elderly, the ill, and pregnant women - all those judged unfit to work by the SS doctors.
We filed silently past a tangled mountain of eyeglasses, a huge collection of prosthetic limbs and crutches, mountains of suitcases with names and addresses of the owners carefully handwritten on, a giant pit full of cooking implements which were never to be used by women preparing meals for their families, piles reaching to the ceiling of hairbrushes, shaving brushes, and toothbrushes, and - perhaps most chillingly of all - one huge room filled with tonnes upon tonnes of human hair, harvested from prisoners both dead and alive to be 'recycled' by the Nazis into socks and cloth for the armed forces. In another barrack building, photos line the walls, faces of the thousands upon thousands of prisoners who never left the camp. At Birkenau, those prisoners who escaped the initial selection for the gas chambers had a life expectancy of just three months before they succumbed to exhaustion, starvation, disease, or the brutality of the guards.
In barrack 11a, we walked through the cells below the building where prisoners were held before execution, or were deliberately starved to death, a common punishment in the event of an attempted escape when 10 randomly selected prisoners from the escapees barracks would be starved to death as a deterrent to any future escapees. One cell housed a famous Francisan priest, a man who had volunteered to take the place of another prisoner, a young man with children who had been randomly selected for execution by starvation. After fourteen days without food and water, the priest was executed by poison injection; the young man whose place he had taken survived the war and went on to live a long life. Those cells were also the first place that Cyclon B was ever used against humans, when 600 Polish prisoners were chosen at random as 'test subjects' for the lethal gas.
Next door to these barracks was the courtyard, and a brick wall where thousands of individuals had been executed by a single gunshot in the back of the head, after first being forced to strip naked and face the wall. Today, it is a memorial where people leave flowers, but the very air of the place was somehow dark, and the feeling of fear, pain and unimaginable suffering that had occurred there was still present.
From the barracks, we were taken to the gas chambers, and were guided in silence through the concrete rooms where thousands of people had been gassed to death, then to the crematoriums where the bodies had been burned to disguise the evidence of genocide. By this point, we were feeling physically ill, pale and shaken by what we had seen. We looked at each other as we left, but had nothing to say. Sometimes, there just aren't any words.
As disturbing an experience as it was, we were profoundly grateful for the chance to have been to this place, and to the people who worked to ensure that the site remains not just as a reminder of what occurred there, but also to give a sense of the people, the individual lives that were lost or shattered forever by the horrors of the Nazi 'Final Solution'.
All our best from Poland,
Dan and Gabrielle